Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Thing-a-Thon: "The Things" (2011)

“The Things” is a short story (and Hugo Award Nominee) from author Peter Watts. The Shirley Jackson Award-winning story is a brilliant, unconventional “re-imagining” of the specific events of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982); one told from the perspective of The Thing itself.

The appeal of this approach is obvious. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), for all its brilliance, never delved into the reasons or motives behind the Thing’s presence on Earth, or its seemingly malevolent behavior towards humans.

Watts’ story suggests that the Thing is not a monster, nor malevolent at all…just a form of life quite different from humanity.

And it is highly intelligent.  Even…sensitive.

The story’s stunning (and controversial) last line finds the emotionally-damaged Thing recommitting itself to the assimilation of Earth. The last line is violent in concept, but also suggestive of the fact that the alien simply doesn’t understand our form of life any better than we understand its form of life. The chasm between species is too great to successfully navigate.

“The Things” tells the story of the The Thing all over again, giving us a blow-by-blow of each human (Norris, Palmer, Childs, etc.) assimilated by the Thing, and even gives us a new twist on the 1982 film’s ambiguous ending. Here, we see that Childs is actually a Thing, and has been for some time. For years, audiences have wondered if MacReady was a Thing, if Childs was a thing, or they were both human.

Now we have an answer.

But overall, the story carries remarkable value for its “alien” (but not “evil”) perspective, thereby fostering an understanding that those two words are quite different. The Thing, we learn, considers assimilation “communion,” a word suggesting union and synthesis, not destruction, and it even refers to itself as “an explorer, an ambassador, a missionary” who “spread across the universe” and has encountered “countless” worlds, offering each communion.

Given its high-minded understanding of itself and its role, it is not a surprise that the Thing is emotionally hurt -- and feels attacked -- by human behaviors.  The humans keep trying to burn it, to murder it. On this world, the Thing comes to understand “adaptation is provocation; adaptation is incitement to violence.”  Even as it reckons with this idea, the Thing notes that it feels it is an “obscenity” for life-forms to remain in one form for long.

So while it seeks understanding for its way of life, at the same time it is incapable of understanding our form of life. Intercultural communication is exceedingly difficult.

The gift of Watts’ writing is that his short story makes the horrifying tale of The Thing seem more like a tragedy than a horror movie. Intelligent beings, on each side of the chasm, can’t empathize with one another, or their ways.

Intriguingly, the Thing of the story also comes across as proud of its history, and its identity. It notes that it still possesses “the templates of a thousand worlds,” and that they still “resonate” in its flesh. 

Such thoughts back up its belief that it is an explorer, a pioneer.

The basic idea of this story is the gulf between a human understanding of life, and the alien’s. The Thing sees itself as giving humans a great gift, and is baffled and hurt that the humans don’t feel the same way. “Offered the greater whole, they see loss,” it thinks, baffled. “Offered communion, they see extinction.”

Meanwhile, we look at The Thing, and see a monster, not an ambassador, not an explorer.

We also get an insight into what happens to people assimilated by The Thing. Not all of them even realize they aren’t human anymore. The Thing notes that “the best forgeries are the ones who’ve forgotten they aren’t real.”  This line helps to explore a gap in the movie. Many audiences and fans have wondered if a perfect replica of a human knows that it isn’t human. Apparently, if we take this story’s word for it, some things don’t know the difference between their human selves and their “perfected” version.

The great gift of this particular story is that author Watts had done a tremendous amount of careful, imaginative work to imagine how all the events of The Thing could occur just as we saw them happen in the Carpenter film, but, at the same time, be interpreted in a completely different way. The same tale; new viewpoint.

The story’s ending is admittedly a stumbling point for some readers. The Thing observes that it has offered the “savages” of Earth “salvation,” but they failed to embrace it. In response, the Thing suggests it will just have to “rape” them into seeing the true way.

In this way, the Thing seems like a religious zealot, or crusader, enforcing its viewpoint through (knowing) violence.

And certainly, earlier points in the story -- concerning Childs -- set-up the “rape” nomenclature in a way that The Thing might understand it. 

But the whole story “humanizes” the Thing, revealing it to be a being of deep emotions and intelligence, until the denouement, which suggests it is doubling down on violence and warfare against the humans, when those things were never its goals.

For some, this is an unsatisfying conclusion. How would a creature that speaks in words of “salvation” and “communion,” even conceive of rape?

The answer arises in what the Thing does. It assimilates humans, their memories, and their ideas. I would suggest that the last line in “The Things” demonstrates the being’s true resilience, it’s total assimilation of human concepts, even as it re-doubles its efforts to share itself with others.  It is starting to think human concepts, in human terms.

I love stories that ask me to challenge my beliefs, or ask me to see beloved characters in a new or different light. “The Things” accomplishes this task with great aplomb, and casts a whole new light one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s an incredible and highly believable twist on a classic tale. It’s a perfect book-end to Carpenter’s film and indeed, to Campbell’s original novella, “Who Goes There?”

1 comment:

  1. John,

    I had never heard of this short story before, which is one of the many reasons I love coming to your site!

    It definitely sounds intriguing, and I need to look this one up. It's fairly obvious that the title refers to us, humans, "things" - plural - which are encountered by the creature at the center of the story.

    While watching John Carpenter's film, I'd often wondered at what point the human ends and the alien begins. Are they one and the same, upon assimilation? Or does the alien lose itself, become such a perfect replica of its host, that it has the same memories and desires, with an additional need to replicate again? Is it aware of what it is, or was?

    It's awesome that a story which ponders similar points is out there. Thank You for sharing it with us!